It was a hundred years ago this week. The first snows had just fallen on Petrograd lighting up the dark. The Bolshevik Revolution promised to transform the lives of gay men across the world. Russia became, for a moment, a shining ideal of liberation and equality. At a time when they were persecuted and imprisoned in Britain, Germany and America, gay men were at the heart of Russia’s Bolshevik revolution. Its idealistic leaders, Lenin and Trotsky offered a new world order of equality, opportunity and freedom, where gay men and lesbians would flourish.
Three men, the poet and novelist Mikhail Kuzmin, the diplomat Georgy Chicherin and the rural utopian poet Nikolai Klyuev, moulded and celebrated the events of November 1917 in surprising ways. They were three among many gay men and lesbians who embraced the revolutionary cause.
Chicherin was probably the most brilliant diplomat of his generation. A true internationalist, what drove his commitment to equality? His socialism? His homosexuality? Did the Revolution survive because Chicherin brokered peace with Germany? Lenin believed so. Chicherin’s skilful role in the negotiations with Germany meant that he became Commissar of Foreign Affairs, the Soviet Union’s Foreign Secretary, in 1918 and guided the Soviet Union’s foreign policy for the next twelve years: the first, and the only openly gay man to achieve this distinction.
Klyuev embodied the Revolution. He came from the deep rural background of North-West Russia and had become the leader of the so-called ‘peasant poets’. His frankly homosexual verse mixed landscapes, male bodies and the virtues of labor in a sort of spiritual Shangri-La, a utopia he was convinced the events of 1917 would bring about.
Kuzmin was one of Russia’s most celebrated poets in 1917. An old school friend of Chicherin, he’d achieved notoriety ten years before with Wings, his novel of the sexual awakening of a young country lad who comes to maturity through love of another man. He embraced the Bolshevik cause both practically – he set up the Bolshevik’s art newspaper – and passionately as the most sophisticated of Russia’s contemporary writers. His poem, ‘Russian Revolution’, was wholly joyous in its response to the Bolshevik coup, admonishing Russians: ‘What’s the point of sadness? / This is no funeral – we’re building a new house. / Will there be space for all of us? / Let’s think about that later.’
Would the Revolution have survived without these gay men? They symbolized all the Revolution aspired to be. Trotsky and Lenin needed and wanted them. Trotsky even traded British hostages, including the British Ambassador, just to bring Chicherin back to Russia from Brixton prison in December 1917.
Kuzmin’s louche glamour and internationalism gave urbane polish to Bolshevik agit-prop and Klyuev brought sturdy peasants in from the fields to celebrate the new age of equality, imagining a world where lovers foraged ‘in red-haired woodland, near waterfall veins’, a world in which the Russian Revolution was a pagan revolution.
Despite enduring a gruesome civil war, the Revolution kept true to its word. The crowning moment for same-sex intimacy came in 1922 when the new Soviet criminal code decriminalized sex between men (women had never been criminalized), declaring that the state had no business in sexual matters, ‘as long as nobody’s injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon’.
But two years later the mood was shifting. Lenin was dead, Trotsky losing his battle with Stalin for the soul of the party. Homosexuality was now being ‘diagnosed’ as a disease or condemned as bourgeois individualism (and therefore counter-revolutionary). One doctor proposed the surgical replacement of a gay man’s testicles with those of someone straight.
Chicherin was sent off to Germany to ‘cure’ his homosexuality and finally retired in 1930 ‘for health reasons’. Kuzmin complained in letters of the creeping fear amongst the gay community of Leningrad, but came out for a last public reading at the University in 1928. The audience showered him with flowers, a last huzzah of the commissars of camp before total silence fell on Soviet homosexuality.
Then in 1934 Stalin’s regime recriminalized homosexuality, branding gay men as subversives and enemies of the Soviet Union. Kuzmin and Chicherin died before the real trouble began, but in 1937 Nikolai Klyuev refused to give up on his dream of a socialist rural utopia and was arrested as a counter-revolutionary. He was shot in some remote corner of Siberia.
Russia’s gay revolution was over in a blink of an eye, but its spirit lives on. The reason why we haven’t heard of these men, so celebrated in their time, so rich in image and endeavour, is because their lives and works were systematically erased by later Soviet re-writing of history. Putin continues that Stalinist tradition. But there was a moment 100 years ago when hope trumped oppression and that cannot be extinguished.
The Bolshevik Revolution turned in on itself and became a monster, but for that moment when the snow fell, when it was driven by aspirations of real equality, gay men and lesbians were at the heart of delivering that vision. And across Putin’s Russia brave and brilliant gay men and women continue to fight for the unfinished business of the Revolution, their equality. Inspired by Kuzmin’s words, in that Russian house there is ‘space for all of us’.